Tipping Points: Science, Surprise, and Power

There is a phenomenon in both the physical sciences and in human interaction known as the tipping point. In common language, such a thing may be referred to as “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” a “point of no return,” or “the last straw.”

That such things exist, in nature and in human society, is widely recognized. It is often easy to see exactly where that point was in post event analysis. Ah, but seeing it as it comes over the horizon – that is much harder. Discerning the tipping point is a fascinating process.

As a military pilot, I had  several occasions to be part of accident investigations. It was not a rare thing to see something happen or a decision made that had unforeseen consequences. Add one or two more key points and a situation exists wherein the pilots are out of options. Nothing left to them could save the situation once they crossed a tipping point.

An oft cited tipping point in population studies was built around the pond and lily pad scenario. In this model, on Day 1, a single lily pad appeared. On Day 2, a second pad appeared, doubling the number of lily pads. Each day the number of lily pads doubled. The tipping point came when the pond was one-half covered with lily pads.

To the casual observer, there was no major issue at hand – only half the pond was covered. In fact, there was only one day left to control growth. The next day, the pond was 100% covered in lily pads. Time ran out well before the casual observer might have anticipated. The same sort of warnings and timelines are ongoing now around global warming.

I live in the Smoky Mountains and so have the opportunity to see the tipping point in weather. At any given time, the weather may be less than balmy, but it’s not a big deal. A couple of small changes happen, and suddenly the roads are covered in black ice.

So too is it in politics and social development.

Smoking was thoroughly embedded in American culture. It was everywhere – in the arts, in social settings, at work. Eventually, common sense and basic science prevailed. Smoking in public became a rare event. Smoking is now well below its high point of years ago. There is an appropriate social stigma attached to it today. People finally figured it out, and the social rules changed.

Richard Nixon had no intention of resigning. But a small handful of Republican senators reached their own tipping point. They advised Nixon they could no longer support him, and they said others felt the same. A tipping point was reached and within days, Nixon resigned.

Just a few years ago, widespread gay rights seemed inconceivable. A landmark Supreme Court decision affirming those rights was unimaginable. A decades longer fight was a reasonable expectation.

But more gay people came out. Others realized these were their friends and family members, not some frightening strangers. A tipping point was reached in public consciousness. Things changed with breath taking speed. Not everywhere, still, but overall, the nation changed.

Our politics and our social discourse seem ripe with tipping points right now. Look for them. In some ways, the midterm elections were a tipping point brought to bear. Many decided that too much of what is going on is unacceptable. They identified those responsible.

In the blink of an eye (an illusion – this had been building), 40 House seats and 7 governorships changed hands. Turnover that large is rare. A scale of change like that is not progress or evolution. It is a landslide, based on reaching a tipping point.

The Mueller investigation is likely to present several tipping points soon. Whether they lead to presidential indictment, impeachment, no action, or deferred legal action is unknown. But they are coming. Watch for those small, key events or decisions that can quickly set big forces in motion.

This blog noted earlier that we now see the real risk of armed conflict with Russia and/or China in the near term. Said another way, tipping points of risk analysis will come about. As a result, conflict will happen or not, seemingly very quickly.

On so many fronts in the coming weeks, someone’s decision to act, to speak, or to dig in is likely to create a tipping point. These will lead to major consequences.

Watch closely boys and girls. Some serious history is about to happen before your eyes.

       Bill Clontz

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